..By:Aditya Neela Dilip Nimkar
My passion for two things is known to all, travelling and food. In fact, I am of the opinion that food is a journey in itself. There are several ingredients which travel from various corners of the world and mix with each other, become tastiest cuisine and get themselves served in your platter. For many among us, travelling is indulging in local delicacies. Surprisingly, not every land which has been a producer of a certain food item is best known for it’s preparation. A particular food item which has been a specialty of a particular country actually tastes better in some other corners of the world. Apart from noodles no food of Mainland China is popular worldwide, but if you travel to India, you will find Chinese food has become an integral part of Indian street food culture. But let me warn you, the Chinese food you eat at Indian streets has no Mandarin connection. It is collaborated with Indian spices and becomes a totally new dish. Chinese Bhel is popular dish in India, which is an Indian version of Indian food item ‘Bhel’ with help of Chinese ingredients. Well, if you are travelling to Mumbai ever, you should definitely visit Irani cafes.
As I mentioned earlier, several food items have been introduced to local people through traders, invaders or through migrants and continue to cater the taste buds of the local people even today. Irani Cafes are perfect example of how a journey influences food habits and becomes an identity of food culture.
During a visit to Mumbai, you will come across numerous colonial constructions. The town area is a blend of colonial India’s confluence with colloquial culture. Here you find variety of food cultures. Local Maharashtrian street foods like Vada-Pav (Paav) to Chat items. Vegetarian food restaurants to non-vegetarian cuisines like Pulav, Biryani, fish items and egg varieties are always ready to feed a hungry belly.
But, apart from street food stalls Irani Cafes are one major part of Mumbai’s food culture which takes you back in time. These Persian food servers are an integral part of Mumbai’s food culture.
What are Irani Cafés?
Persians, practicing Zoroastrianism migrated to India around 15th century. Iranis are last batch of Persians migrated to India during 19th to 2oth century (they considered little distinct from Zorashtrians). It is said that famine of Persia forced Iranis to leave their homeland and traveled towards India. After crossing Hindukush Mountains Irani troops reached to Hindustan and over the period of time settled at west coast of it ie Bombay Presidency during British era. For the sake of survival, many among them started selling Irani tea. This Irani tea along with Salty Khari Biscuits and special Bun-Muska (Bun bread and butter) earned them their bread butter. This simple yet popular stuff bring birth to Irani Cafes, prosperity to iranis and new heritage to Mumbai culture.
Architecture and Ambiance
Inception of maximum Irani Cafes was more than a century old. Since they have built during British era, they have clear influence of colonialism. Mumbai has now around 25 Irani cafes and they have become a part of city’s heritage walk. Maximum Irani Cafes have lofty wooden ceilings with Ceiling fans, wooden ovens, and marble surfaced tables with typical table clothes, vintage chairs and flooring. Walls adorn with Ahura Mazda, prophet Zarathrushta as they are symbols of their Zoroastrian faith. Apart from these you can find several Newspaper cuttings and even vintage pictures of Bombay which definitely gives nostalgia.
Hindus consider corners of the streets not so auspicious for business. This very omen helped Iranians to occupy corners of the streets and maximum Irani Cafes sprung up at every corner of the city. Undoubtedly these corners proved damn lucky to Iranis.
What do they serve?
It is interesting to know how emigrant ingredients got nationality. Tea has been introduced to India by British, and this recreational beverage has now become an unofficial national drink of India.
Centuries ago breads were used to convert Indian Hindus to Catholicism. Over the period of time Indian appetite digest bread and it became a part of Indian breakfast.
Butter has been always a part of Indian food. As per Indian Holy Scriptures, even Lord Krishna used to steal butter in his childhood. But, table butter was never been a regular concept for Indians until British introduced it.
And now, your visit of Mumbai will be incomplete if you have not visited an Irani Café and if you don’t have Brun Maska (buttered Crispy bun) or Bun Maska (buttered soft bun). Popular Irani Bakeries like ‘Yazdani’ still baked buns in wooden oven.
This Bun Maska and rounds of Irani teas has become an associate of many renowned lawyers who discussed, studied their cases in Irani cafes nearby High courts, Irani teas refresh creative minds of many authors, playwrights and journalists. Bun Maska has become a food of many struggling actors who could not afford to indulge in expensive food.
These cafes are usual hang out points of College students, break out place for local dockyard labors and these very places were addas of several revolutionists.
Apart from Bun Maska and iconic Irani teas, these cafes are famous for Irani delicacies. B Merwan at Grant Road, Mumbai is quite famous for its Mawa Cakes (Muffins) and puddings.
Kyani Café near Metro Cinema offers Kheema Pav , Dhansak and some of the best confectioneries like mouthwatering Shrewsberry biscuits.
Jimmy Boy is one of the best Irani Cafes as it serves best Salli Boti, Salli per edu, Berri Pulav which is certainly not to be missed delicacy. This pulav (Biryani) has been spiced up with fried berried which have been traveled all the way from Iran. Their tanginess add taste to spicy Biryani.
Café Mondegar, Café Britannia, Café Millitary, Leopold Café have been already among the most celebrated cafes of South Mumbai and became a part of its heritage. Leopold Café is quite popular among tourists for its Beer towers on every table. This place had been a witness of unfortunate incident of 26/11 (terrorist attack on Mumbai), but now it has recovered from the tragedy and is back on it’s feet to serve it’s loyal customers. Internationally acclaimed novel ‘Shantaram’ has mentioned this café.
Café Stadium is a place which I used to visit regularly. It is close to Churchgate Station and offers amazing custard.
Ideal Corner at Hornby view, Fort offers authentic non vegetarian Iranian cuisines.
Apart from food, you can have sips of Pallonji’s special soda. The way we used to have Coke along with burgers, Irani Cafes have exclusive options of Pallonji’s soda. You can neither find the taste nor this brand anywhere else. Pallonji is a Parsi brand of soda, mostly serve raspberry or ginger soda. Raspberry is sweet, but ginger flavor is little spicy which you cannot consider as an option to water especially while having Spicy pulav. Many people make cocktail of these two flavors as well.
Egg delicacies like Akuri, Masala Omelets, Scrambled eggs, Bhurji are worth trying. Non veg delicacies such as chicken/mutton Dhansak, Kheema Pav are really a treat to non-vegetarians.
Over all, Irani cafes are undoubtedly best Indo-Iranian collaboration food lovers can ever imagine. So far, Persian taste shows that it’s not only Mughlai or Punjabi food that gives you taste of India, but Persian fusion with Indian delicacies also provide high amount of gastronomic delights to travelers without spending too much.